TAMPA — Well-bred men and women of the mid-to-late 19th century lived by a strict code of conduct. Modesty was high on that list.
Upper-class ladies and gents were taught at an early age it was generally unacceptable to go out in public without a hat for the head and gloves for your hands. Women wore high-top buttoned-up shoes similar to those worn by their male counterparts.
Simply put, “the less skin shown the better” was the proper mode of dress.
So why in the world would two local male and female actors posing as products of the Victorian era be standing on a stage at Shriners Hospitals for Children – Tampa with him in long johns and her in a corset?
They — namely Michael Norton and Lynne Locher — were there for a presentation entitled Victorians Undressed, and their purpose was to educate patients, siblings and parents about the customary under- and outer-wear of upper-class guests who stayed at the opulent Tampa Bay Hotel, founded in 1891 by railroad tycoon Henry Plant.
The skit was staged as an outreach program of the Henry Plant Museum, once home to the 511-room luxury resort during the Victorian era.
The event was paid for by donations to power2give.org/tampa bay, a new funding program of the Arts Council of Hillsborough County.
The actors’ style of dress fit the glamour of the Victorian Era and ornate décor of the hotel that catered mainly to wealthy Northerners.
Norton, who took on the role of George, and Locher, who played George’s wife, Penelope, had every eye in the audience focused on what they called their ritual of putting on the proper attire to begin each day.
“It takes me almost an hour and a half to get dressed in the morning,” said Penelope, who required George’s help to lace up her corset as tightly as humanely possible without hindering her ability to breathe.
“Victorian ladies liked very tiny waists and some ladies even wore their corsets to bed,” she said.
Penelope continued by slipping into her petticoats — “only two” on this particular day. She followed by attaching her bustle, which, according to her was “the most important garment” of her ensemble, which also consisted of a floor-length skirt and blouse jacket, complete with mutton sleeves.
Meanwhile, George stepped into his dark trousers, which he noted had an expandable waistband that buttoned rather than zippered.
He especially caught the children’s attention when he put on a shirt featuring buttons made of metal. It also appeared to be collarless.
“But that’s not really true because I can attach a high collar to impress people, a western-styled one that’s great for sports, or even a paper collar, which, if it gets dirty, I can throw away,” said George, who noted how important it was for him to finish off his look with an ascot and stick pin that distinguished his social status.
He proceeded to add a vest and a pocket watch and fob to his attire while his wife wound an “old mink” wrap around her neck and completed her ensemble by placing a flowered bonnet on her head.
George then slipped on his topcoat, put on his hat and gloves and reached for his walking stick, explaining that proper etiquette dictated men must either tip or remove their hats when meeting ladies on the street and they were never to wear them while indoors.
Following their presentation, Heather Trubee Brown took the microphone.
She is curator of education at the Henry Plant Museum, which in 1933 took over the hotel building on the University of Tampa campus following its closing the previous year.
Brown said more than half a million dollars was spent on furnishings for the hotel, where guests paid just $5 a night to stay.
She then proceeded to pass around several old photos and postcards of the luxurious hotel, which she said helped put Tampa on the map.
“Only about 700 people lived in Tampa back then and the area was mainly covered in orange groves,” Brown said.
She also allowed audience members to handle some artifacts from the Victorian era. A high-top woman’s shoe with multiple buttons plus a button-puller to close the shoe’s front opening, and a hair curling iron and a clothes-pressing iron, which had to be heated on the stove, were among them.
Regina Watkins of Brandon watched the presentation with her 13-year-old daughter, Emily, a patient being treated for scoliosis at the Shriners hospital. Emily’s little sister was seated beside her.
“It was wonderful; very well done,” Watkins said. “Even my 4-year-old stay-ed interested.”
Henry Plant Museum Executive Director Cynthia Zinober was also among those in attendance.
“I hadn’t seen the presentation and so I wanted to come today,” said Zinober, noting the event was well worth her time.
“The kids seemed to love it,” she said. “I even heard a little girl in a wheelchair ask, ‘Will you do it again?’”
The young girl Zinober was referring to is 8-year-old Jessica Hendrick of Tampa, who receives treatment at the hospital for spina bifida.
“It was really cool,” Jessica said. “I liked how they kept adding clothes and I wouldn’t mind dressing like that because they looked really pretty.”
Jessica’s mother, Eileen Hendrick, who was initially concerned her daughter might be bored by the presentation, was surprised by her child’s ultra-positive reaction.
“Jesse even asked them if they were on YouTube,” Eileen Hendrick chuckled.
Joyce McKenzie can be reached at [email protected]